I sometimes consider writing an all-blog top ten. Who doesn’t love a list?! But I have been restraining myself: it sometimes seems that just those books I love the most are the ones that others find the most interminable (not exactly what you look for in a good read.) My brother recently spent a – whole – year – reading The Luminaries on my fevered recommendation. He wasn’t impressed.
“So, run me through what you think actually happened,” he asked, battle-weary, at the end of it.
“Well. There’s – well, the woman, and there was opium, and someone from China, and – gold? – perhaps I can’t remember all of the details, but the chapters get very short towards the end, isn’t it clever?”
You see – don’t trust me. I get excited about structural innovation. But anyway, my brother also wasn’t at all impressed by Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, so with reverse logic (and a burning love for Franzen’s preceding novel, The Corrections) that seemed a fair recommendation for it. Why, when The Corrections rocked my world, did I wait so long to read Freedom? Well, perhaps I’d gleaned the sorry truth – that my brother was right. Sorry, no, I meant: that it just isn’t as good.
Freedom is the story of Walter and Patty Berglund – long-time parents, liberals, and pillars of the community. Or are they? Past neighbours hear rumours of it all going horribly wrong once they moved away. But what on earth happened? Well, Franzen tells us what happened – blow by blow, from childhood to present moment, twisting and turning, first one character, then another, then back to the first, then a third… His specialism is writing “a big novel about big politics that is driven by a handful of small-scale emotional relationships.” (Benjamin Markovits, The Independent.) And there is big politics: there’s a whole liberal/republican classist thing going on in here, a major corporate-corruption thing, an environmental and preservation thing – that’s why Franzen is respected as he is. He grapples with these hefty subjects fearlessly, piling them atop of each other in a cocky stack of pages. But, as Markovits notes, what makes Franzen Franzen is by driving these subjects through character. It’s through the characters that Franzen lives and dies. And in Freedom, he doesn’t quite get them gasping for air.
Don’t get me wrong – his portraits of people are astonishing. His characters are spectacularly well drawn – detailed, nuanced, they achieve the semi-impossible of giving a teeming, complex world beneath the surface while still keeping his characters utterly normal, utterly commonplace.With each in turn you feel he must have lived that life, known that person – how else could he possibly bring such a depth of insight? There seems to be some debate rumbling on about Franzen being anti-feminist – well, to my mind one read of the complexity of the character of Patty Berglund blows that out of the water.
So what’s lacking? To steal a line from the New York Times’s review of The Corrections, “If you don’t end up liking each one of Franzen’s people, you probably just don’t like people.” But in Freedom – you just don’t like them enough, and they are – whisper it – a bit boring. Richard, the long-time-friend, rocker-without-responsibility, is the most successful character, with his total lack of interest in conventional relationships and morality, but he’s supporting cast to the brokenness of Patty and Walter who jar or melt and never quite connect.
No one can doubt the quality of Franzen’s writing. He’s the voice of early 21st Century America, deftly skewering the modern mindset. Perhaps this will age him, but more likely his work, with its bags of liberal guilt, will be referred to as a perfect snapshot of the educated Western mindset in these years. But Freedom is not his best. It is a more remote, observational novel than The Corrections – entirely knowledgeable of, but not passionate about, the lives it displays so completely. It reminded me throughout of Roth’s American Pastoral (which has to be up there in my top reads) – Franzen and Roth both bring mainstream people to spitting, firing life. But ultimately Freedom suffers from this comparison. Recommendation? Read American Pastoral or The Corrections instead. (Unless you’re my brother, in which case it’s a safe bet to avoid both.)
NB. Freedom was published in 2010; there is a flurry of Franzen-attention at the moment as he’s just published his latest, Purity but I’m running 5 years late. I hear that Purity doesn’t live up to The Corrections either.